Graphic illustrating circularitywith 2 PIs photos

NSF supports a new graduate program focused on resource and water circularity

A growing global population and limited resources require society to move toward a circular economy. Can you imagine a world in which resources are conserved and reused, wastes are upcycled, and the cycling of resources is continuous and sustainable?

A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota want you to do just that. Paige Novak and William Arnold, both from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, along with their co-PIs Timothy Smith, Bonnie Keeler, and Natasha Wright, have devised a program to teach the upcoming generation of researchers about circularity while increasing their communication, leadership, and teamwork skills, gaining important real-world experience, and exploring their potential for impact with the help of an Artist in Residence. Their plan, Cultural Change and Social Equity as Drivers for Convergent Research in Water and Material Circularity,” has been awarded $3,000,000 of support from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) program. NRT projects help connect cross-disciplinary groups at universities and launch new ideas in graduate education and training. This NSF program supports graduate students’ research, educates the STEM leaders of tomorrow, and strengthens the national research infrastructure.

Sylvia Butterfield, acting assistant director for NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources said, “NSF continues to invest in the future STEM workforce by preparing trainees to address challenges that increasingly require crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries. Supporting innovative and evidence-based STEM graduate education with an emphasis on recruiting and retaining a diverse student population is critical to ensuring a robust and well-prepared STEM workforce.”

The researchers believe that past efforts to increase circular use of resources have fallen short because they focused only on new technologies while failing to consider cultural perspectives and the economic and policy frameworks that are critical to their success. Engineers, scientists, and policy makers need new approaches to advance circularity, approaches that incorporate collaboration, non-technological factors, and multiple stakeholders’ values. The NRT award allows these researchers to address the need for new approaches by training graduate students in the circular use of materials, energy, and water.

The traineeship anticipates providing unique training opportunities to approximately 300 students. The program will integrate policy, engineering, and science with a combination of internships, cutting-edge research, and community interactions. Community interactions will be led by an Artist-in-Residence in cooperation with UMN’s Weisman Art Museum. The goal is to enhance the trainees’ positive societal impact through critical reflection, creative collaboration, and social engagement.

Trainees will come from across the University, spanning fields of engineering, science, public affairs, urban planning, and environmental policy. The training effort will lead to new technologies, policies, economic instruments, methods, and implementation strategies for the circular use of resources.

These trainees represent a new generation of sustainability and circularity professionals. They will be prepared to connect research, industry, and communities. This integrated research and education traineeship will result in increased interactions with the community and industries, and ultimately, greater sustainability of Earth’s precious resources.